America’s largest public transit system is unreliable and often decrepit. Socialist state legislator Zohran Mamdani says that can change. We spoke to Mamdani about his proposal to fully fund city transit, increase service, freeze fares, and make buses free.
Commuters at the 53rd and Lexington subway station in New York, US, on December 21, 2022. (Jeenah Moon / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
New York assembly member Zohran Mamdani recently introduced “Fix the MTA,” a package of eight bills to dramatically improve New York City’s beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Mamdani, one of eight Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members in the New York State Legislature, represents parts of Queens including “the People’s Republic of Astoria,” with fellow elected socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kristen Gonzalez, and Tiffany Cabán.
According to Mamdani, the legislation would transform New York City’s often decrepit public transit. He sat down with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas to discuss his new legislation, its unorthodox introduction, and a universal approach to fixing New York’s public services.
Can you give an overview of the new MTA legislation that you introduced?
We’ve introduced a package called Fix the MTA, comprised of eight bills. Of those eight bills, seven are programmatic. What that means is that they do not have immediate fiscal implications. They are policy changes that deal with the authority that is the MTA. The eighth bill is a spending bill. That’s what this package is built around. That eighth bill, which we’ve titled the Formula Three Act, fills the MTA’s operating budget shortfall, which right now is projected to lead to more than $2.5 billion in a fiscal cliff in the years to come. On top of that, it deals with issues like continuous fare hikes. Public transit is increasingly unaffordable for working-class New Yorkers. So we freeze the fare at $2.75.
The second plank is that we fund frequency. Right now, New Yorkers are waiting, oftentimes ten minutes, for a train. They don’t have the bus service that they deserve. So we are proposing to set aside money that would fund six-minute headways for trains and for the hundred most-used bus routes, and then additional money to increase service across the entire bus system by 20 percent.
The third thing is that our proposal would create free buses (including select bus service) phased in over four years. That ensures that one of the linchpins of our transit system becomes universally accessible, faster, and safer.
Where can the MTA’s fiscal woes be traced back to?
I think it’s a host of different things. One is a serious disinvestment, both on a federal and state level. Nationally, we’ve endured countless, severe austerity measures aimed at public transit. At the state level, we’ve seen governors repurposing money that was meant for the MTA and redirecting it to fund their pet projects. Former governor Andrew Cuomo took money for the MTA and spent it on an upstate ski resort instead. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that have regularly been shifted away from a service that keeps working-class New Yorkers on their feet, and then used to fund whatever the flight of fancy is of the executive at the time instead.
I also think the general understanding of the MTA is flawed. Viewing the authority as something that needs to generate sufficient revenue to keep itself afloat is inconsistent with the authority’s actual function in our society, which is to provide a public service. It is a public good. And yet for so long we have subscribed to a theory of economics where we need to generate more and more revenue from riders to fund the MTA, as opposed to funding being delivered by the state through taxing the wealthiest New Yorkers.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the seven programmatic bills? If they don’t have immediate fiscal implications, what do they do?
When you have a bill that has fiscal implications, the success or failure of that bill will be determined by its incorporation into the budget, which is due on April 1. So we will see the success of the Formula Three Act determined by that point. For programmatic bills, you can pass them any time before the end of the session in early June. So that fight is a longer one, and will roar its loudest in the months of April, May, and early June.
The seven bills are the product of hundreds of hours of meetings that we’ve had with advocacy organizations like the Riders Alliance or Reinvent Albany, transit experts, the state comptroller — so many different entities across the sphere of oversight, understanding, and accountability of the MTA.
On one side you have a bill that deals with utility relocation. What this means in plain language is that oftentimes when the MTA engages in capital construction — construction for the creation of new subway stations or subway lines or the extension of existing ones — a myriad set of delays occur. That has fiscal and timeline implications, but also diminishes public trust in the authority and in public services at large. This bill requires public authorities like ConEd or Verizon to follow the MTA’s timeline and guidance on infrastructure that needs to be addressed in order to complete these projects.
Then we have another bill, which would permanently sunset an existing bill called 119-R that deals with value capture. If passed, our bill would authorize the city to engage with the MTA and participate in a value-capture mechanism. Right now, when the MTA builds out infrastructure, it creates value in the surrounding area, but while the MTA takes the cost of that construction, it never receives the value that it creates. This bill authorizes the city to come to an agreement with the MTA to create a value-capture program, whereby some of this additional value created would be taxed and redirected back to the MTA as a new source of revenue. That’s critical for producing revenue and addressing the imbalance in how it has so often been, where the state creates value and then private entities get to capture that value and retain it.
Another thing this package is also concerned with is actually delivering what is promised. So if we want faster buses, we can’t stop at increasing bus service or making buses free, which would enable all-door access and allow people to get on quicker. We also have to ensure that we clear the streets. And while it is a city’s responsibility to create new bus lanes, there’s a bill within our package that allows for the ticketing of vehicles that are idling in the lanes used by buses if spotted by two consecutive buses. That creates a new incentive structure around clearing the lane and eliminating the incentives for double parking or using hazards in areas where buses need to be moving.
There are other bills that mandate new reporting requirements for transparency and accountability. There is a bill to give riders an actual vote on the MTA board. There is a bill to remit one of the sources of the MTA’s funding directly to the MTA, so it wouldn’t have to go through the legislative appropriations process, which has allowed executives in the past to reroute funds. And then there are bills around accountability, specifically the authority’s budget office. We want to understand why the MTA is in crisis, and what it truly means to resolve it.
You introduced this package as a part of an organizing campaign, which isn’t conventional. Can you talk to me about the thinking behind this sort of organizing approach to your legislation?
One of the goals my office, including my chief of staff Elliana Bisgaard-Church and my communication director Emily Lemmerman, had was to take the intensity that we treat electoral campaigns with and bring it to the legislative side of our work, which is a bit of a gamble financially.
So many New Yorkers, myself included, for a long time looked at the MTA as something that simply was broken — this is how it is and how it always will be.
I had about $1,800 in my campaign account, until a fundraiser which yielded about $22,000. After discussions with my team, I made the decision to spend all of that money on the Fix the MTA campaign, because fundamentally, the point of that money is to create and build power for the working class. We don’t just do that by winning reelection or having new individuals win their elections. We also do it by educating, engaging, and agitating individuals around a demand that would provide them with transformative material benefits to their lives. So, spending that money on a package of videos, literature, canvassing — on all of these kinds of things — is critical to actually realizing the hope that our electoral project gives.
Elections are about hope, and legislative sessions are about the fulfillment of that hope. So it makes no sense that we should only invest in all of these methods of engagement for the first part of the process, and then take a different approach when it comes time to make those words ring true.
There is no shortage of issues facing New Yorkers. Why did you decide to focus on the MTA?
So many New Yorkers, myself included, for a long time looked at the MTA as something that simply was broken — this is how it is and how it always will be, fated to be this way for eternity. It’s unaccountable with no means by which to change it and make it better. We’ll simply see it get slightly worse over time.
So part of the point of this campaign is to educate New Yorkers about the fact that not only is this literally a state authority, but it exists as it does because of Albany. And if we change the priorities of Albany, then we can change the MTA. If we change the MTA, and Albany’s approach to the MTA, we can change the transit system that we have to live with. And through that education, you can then agitate and organize.
What’s so exciting about this campaign is that so often with much of the legislative work that we do, we’re trying to convince people as to the importance or the relevance of the issue to their everyday life. With the MTA, you don’t have to do that. You skip that step, because everybody already takes the train, takes the bus, they know what it means.
What we’re pitching is not something that will require the creation of a new agency to implement. At its core, this is about funding, which means this is about political will. Because if we pass the funding to freeze the fare, if we pass the funding to increase frequency, if we pass the funding to make buses free, we don’t have to worry about the implementation of those things. It can simply be done. The entity that would do it already exists. You would just stop collecting fare on the bus. You would freeze the fare at $2.75, you would have enough money to fund additional operating for frequency across the subway and bus system. That’s another exciting portion of this campaign: we are promising things that, if fulfilled, can actually be delivered to people where they can feel the benefits of their organizing almost immediately.
We want to empower the working class to know that these victories could happen across any issue as long as we organize.
All of this stems from DSA’s ideas about how we create transformative change to ensure that the working class is at the forefront of that demand and that organizing. So it’s applying the ethos and the ideas of my comrades in DSA and bringing them into the forefront of this campaign to ensure that people don’t think that, “oh wow, we could have these things. I hope Albany does it.” People will say, “oh, we can have these things, and I need to show up to my local subway station at this hour to canvas my neighbors to ensure that they reach out to the representatives and they reach out to the governor and they know that it’s in their hands.” Because we want to win these things. And we also want to empower the working class to know that these victories could happen across any issue as long as we organize.
What implications will this legislation have for TWU Local 100 and other local transit unions?
We had an initial meeting with TWU Local 100 (whose contract typically kicks off the bargaining for all unions related to the MTA) where we gave an overview of this project, and we’re looking forward to having more sustained meetings and fighting for this package in full partnership with the union.
One thing we are looking at is that in the MTA’s financial plan, they propose an allocation of 2 percent raises for union workers. We did an analysis of the relation between raises and inflation historically, and we found that actually the floor of possibility should be a 3.5 percent raise. And so we have an allocation for it being 3.5 instead of 2 percent. Obviously, we’re not saying that should be the ceiling. But if you want to plan in a fiscally prudent manner, you need to plan for something that is in line with what the union has been winning in the past as a bare minimum.
State senator Jabari Brisport was actually scheduled to be at the press conference, but he wasn’t able to make it in time due to train delays.
There have also been individual operators within the union like JP Patafio, who has been part of the launch of our campaign, and he’s somebody who has been leading the fight for free buses in New York City. He is a bus operator in Brooklyn and has spoken often about how if we were to implement free buses, we would increase safety for bus operators. Because so often, one of the leading causes of violence toward operators, or even a perception of a lack of safety, in their job is around fare collection with customers. If you eliminate that part of the engagement with riders, then you establish a newfound safety for operators.
Is this legislation being supported by the other DSA members in office?
Absolutely. This is a package that does not succeed without the work of our entire project and NYC DSA’s Socialists in Office (SIO) committee. None of the other SIO members are holding these specific pieces of legislation, but that is more a reflection of the fact that when we were pursuing this legislation, two pieces of the legislation were previously existing, and for the other six, it was about ensuring that legislators who had been leading specifically around the MTA continue that fight building upon their work.
That being said, there’s still support from the other socialists in Albany, and there will be a lot of public-facing work and events in the future. State senator Jabari Brisport was actually scheduled to be at the press conference, but he wasn’t able to make it in time due to train delays.
How is this approach different from previous attempts to fix the MTA?
Means testing does not work.
In this package, what we are also fighting for is universal approaches to remedying social and economic crises. There is a broad understanding in New York politics that our transit system is unaffordable for the poorest New Yorkers. I say that because we have a program called Fair Fares, which seeks to provide transit subsidies to most working-class and low-income riders, and it’s a means-tested program based upon income eligibility. Of the New Yorkers who are eligible for Fair Fares, 48 percent have not applied, and 14 percent have no idea how to apply.
When we fight for universal programs, it’s not just because of our ideological belief and the necessity of understanding public goods as being publicly available to every member of the public. It’s also because means-testing does not work. It does not fulfill the mandate that it is supposed to follow. And so what we are fighting for here is a different way of thinking about our transit systems and a different method of implementation of that material benefit to working-class New Yorkers.Original post